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Can a Small College Save Its Small Town?

In many places, they're trying to like never before.

ripon-college
Ripon College is investing in its hometown's Main Street.
(Flickr/Holly Hayes)
A recent Wall Street Journal article documented the increasing trend of liberal arts colleges in small-town America taking a much more active role in trying to build up their communities. The Journal highlighted two colleges that share their names with their towns: Albion in Michigan, where the school is giving scholarships to local residents and investing tens of millions of dollars into downtown, and Ripon in Wisconsin, where the college’s president has moved his office downtown to Main Street.

This trend made it onto my radar several years ago when I first received an invitation to talk on the subject from another small-town college in Michigan. The invitation surprised me: As a writer on urban economic issues, most of my work had focused on large cities. Still, I am originally from a rural area and have an affection for the people in small towns, even if I don’t live in one today. And many of the techniques of civic improvement in these places are derived from urban redevelopment projects, albeit on a smaller scale.

What’s been happening with these colleges and their towns is really no different from what has happened in large cities. Globalization, economic change and technology have produced an all-hands-on-deck competitive environment. Just as major corporations, research universities and foundations have engaged in helping to make the bigger cities where they are located succeed, so have the institutions in smaller communities. For many small towns, that means the local college.

A second reason for this shift comes from the changing preferences of today’s world. The stand-alone campus, separated from the place where it’s located, used to be the preferred form. We see this, for example, in the rise of the suburban office park 30 to 40 years ago. Looking for a bucolic refuge from the world, companies wanted to isolate themselves in the way that colleges long had.

Today that’s changed, for companies and colleges alike. People increasingly want to be embedded in and a participant in a dynamic, diverse surrounding. Companies are opening offices in downtowns, and some suburban office parks have fallen on hard times. Colleges are following suit: Chicago’s downtown Loop, for example, is now home to what is known as “Loop U,” a collection of more than 30 higher education institutions that host more than 60,000 students.

Thus we now see liberal arts colleges investing in the downtowns of the smaller communities where so many of them are based, renovating buildings and moving functions up to and including the president’s office. They are sometimes also working to bridge the physical gap between campuses and downtowns. And they are getting involved in initiatives ranging from economic development to educating local residents.

One school I spoke at was Franklin College in Franklin, Ind., a community of about 24,000 in a rural portion of the Indianapolis metro area. Franklin was then in the midst of a debate over a series of proposed community improvements. Some residents favored them, while others thought they were a waste of money. The college wasn’t taking a position, but it did help convene a community gathering where I shared some of my thoughts.

Ultimately, Franklin did move forward with investments including improvements to the downtown, new road signs to the town and a major gateway installation at the interstate highway exit. As it happens, the mayor of Franklin was a graduate of the college, and two of the new businesses that opened downtown were started by its alumni. The college was also involved in luring a life-science firm to the community. B2S Life Sciences decided to locate within walking distance of the college to be able to partner more effectively with the school, especially around placing students with the company as interns.

Many of the efforts these colleges are undertaking are still in their early days. But there’s a good chance that they will have staying power. Colleges’ increasing interest in the communities they anchor is not just a matter of civic altruism. In many cases, the schools face increasing pressures of their own. Between 2009 and 2014, according to The Wall Street Journal, 43 percent of the 300 small-town colleges it analyzed suffered declining enrollments. The squeeze has been particularly acute for schools with weak endowments. In 2015, Sweet Briar College in rural Virginia made headlines when it announced plans to close, though this was later rescinded after a public outcry and a number of new donations (and lawsuits).

These small liberal arts schools tend to have very high tuition rates, though because of student financial aid the actual price paid is often well below the posted rate. But with student loan debt levels through the roof and the media filled with anecdotal reports of graduates with large debts and no jobs, prospective students are looking harder than ever at the price-value ratio.

Still, for prospective students who value the intimacy of small colleges and communities, small towns have a lot to offer. The pressures they face are many of the same ones that have been brought to bear on big cities, corporations and big research universities. So let’s be hopeful that the same kinds of collaborations that have helped to revive parts of urban America can produce results in the small communities where so many seek out their educations.

An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at aaron@aaronrenn.com or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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